Retiring Assemblyman Bob Reilly prefers farm animals over legislative animals.
“I would usually be campaigning right now,” said the 72-year-old Democrat, who isn’t seeking a fifth term and can be found most days at the Shaker Heritage Society site in the town of Colonie, where he cares for cows, turkeys and other barnyard critters.
During his time in the state Legislature, he would stop to see the animals before work as a way to clear his mind. Now the animals have his fuller attention.
A self-described “gentleman frustrated farmer,” Reilly’s connection with animals dates back to his youth in Albany, when his pets included a duck. He said it wasn’t uncommon for his family or other families to have chickens for fresh eggs.
Since then, his knowledge of farming has grown through reading, talking to farmers and trial and error.
“I’ve always had an interest in having animals,” he said.
In the Legislature, he served on the Assembly’s Agriculture Committee and used his personal knowledge to guide his work and influence legislation he advanced. At the end of this session, he tried unsuccessfully to pass a livestock standards bill.
The roster of animals at the site — not counting some cows he previously bought and gave away — includes three types of heritage chickens, Rhode Island Reds, Black Jersey Giants and Dominiques, three cattle and some wild turkey.
The cattle are cordoned off in part of five acres on the property and the birds are in small coops, but he likes the idea of them one day roaming freely around the property as a potential tourist attraction.
One bird that stands out is a young turkey he named “Miracle” because of its origin. The turkey was hatched from an egg that had appeared broken and was tossed by Reilly because he assumed the bird inside was dead.
When he returned to the egg he found the bird was still alive, and after some makeshift rehabilitation to a damaged leg, which required a cardboard splint that Reilly made, Miracle is likely to be all right.
What separates these animals from the residents of larger farms is that they represent a dying breed of animals, which aren’t economically viable since they take a long time to reach maturity. As a result, the cattle and birds he is raising are becoming endangered.
“What we’re losing is our genetic diversity,” said Reilly, who is concerned with the limited breeds of commercially raised animals, bred as quick and profitable food sources. “If there’s not someone like me interested in these animals, they’re going to die out.”
His relationship with the Shaker site goes back almost two decades. He initially joined the Shaker Heritage Society as volunteer at the behest of a friend. The non-profit group offered educational programs about the Shakers and tried to keep the spirit of the site alive. Reilly then spent about six years as the group’s president and served on a board of directors. Now he’s just a volunteer who is given a lot of leeway.
Reilly isn’t just concerned with his own day-to-day fun, though. He has hopes of revitalizing the site and instituting some sort of system to care for the animals long after he’s gone.
He said the animals could be a star attraction for the site and wants to promote them in a manner similar to an herb garden on the property. The herb garden, which measures less than 500 square feet, is identified with small signs and neatly organized to make it easy for tourists to soak up information.
But it’s not exactly the type of thing the Shakers would have created.
“I think if we have some animals that people can see and a story about them, it will attract people,” he predicted.
Other attractions at the site are a gift shop, which sells furniture and wood crafts, a large space that can host concerts and other events, a large barn and an area to construct brooms made of the broom corn that grows on the property. Reilly, who has made one broom in his life, is familiar enough with the steps to talk someone through the process and thinks these types of demonstrations would make for good attractions, in conjunction with the animals.
He is also talking to local officials about fixing up the buildings that have gone vacant and decayed since Albany County took over the site. Reilly contends it is the county’s obligation to find uses for the buildings and people to occupy them.
“I want to help out the [site], but my personal interest is heritage animals,” he said, adding that his work with the animals is good for the community, the Shakers and his own engagement.